Thomas Middleton

Plays by Thomas Middleton

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside is Middleton’s masterpiece of Jacobean city comedy, rich in irony and wordplay. Middleton welds together the themes of corruption, money and sex into a complex whole, in which comedy is mingled with disgust.

Moll Yellowhammer is in love with Touchwood Junior, but her avaricious parents have betrothed her to the rich knight Sir Walter Whorehound, just as they have set up their son Tim to marry a rich Welsh heiress. Sir Walter is conducting an open affair with Mrs Allwit, while her happily cuckolded husband congratulates himself on finding an adulterer to support his household. Meanwhile, Sir Oliver Kix and his wife hope to get their hands on some of Sir Walter’s property, but Lady Kix has been unable to conceive, so they employ the ceaselessly fertile Touchwood Senior (the brother of Moll’s lover) to make Lady Kix pregnant any way possible.

The play signals its ironic nature even in the humorously ironic title: Cheapside maids were not noted for their chastity. London’s busiest commercial area is shown to be a crucible of mercantile greed, where money is more important than either happiness or honour, the most coveted commodities to be bought with it are sex and social prestige, and even true lovers must trick their way to marriage.

The play was probably first performed in 1613 at the Swan theatre, possibly by the Lady Elizabeth’s Men and the Queen’s Revels together.

The Witch

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

A lurid and sensational tragicomedy, Thomas Middleton portrays a court mired in sexual intrigue and deception, and the gruesome witch who keeps them well supplied with love charms and poisons.

At the start of the play, Sebastian returns from abroad to find his fiancée Isabella married that day to Antonio. (Antonio’s courtesan Florida is also upset about the marriage.) Antonio determines to prevent the marriage being consummated so he can claim Isabella back, and asks the witch Hecate to make Antonio impotent. Meanwhile, the Duchess is plotting revenge against her husband the Duke, incensed by his use of her father’s skull as a drinking cup. The courtier Almachildes asks Hecate for a charm to make the Duchess’s woman Amoretta fall in love with him. And Francisca, Antonio’s sister, is panicking about her illegitimate pregnancy. These multiple intrigues pave the way for a tangled combination of bed tricks, misfiring love charms and murders.

The story is twisting and highly complex – possibly because the play’s emphasis is not on plot, but upon topical satire, referencing the contemporary witchcraft scandal of Frances Howard, Robert Carr and Sir Thomas Overbury.

The court tragedy is counterweighted by the lusty, ghastly antics of Hecate, her son Firestone and her familiars. Cooking dead children, practising voodoo, having sex with her cat-spirit and cooking up foul potions, Hecate is the black, potent heart of Middleton’s play.

The Witch, which survives in manuscript form and was not printed until 1778, is thought to have been written between 1613-1616 and performed by the King’s Men at the Blackfriars.

Picture of Thomas Middleton

Thomas Middleton (1570-1627) was an English dramatist, who excelled in both comedy and tragedy. Whilst his so-called 'city comedies' provide insight into 17th-century London life and manners, his tragedies are noted for their richly poetic verse, their emphasis on guilt and corruption, and their understanding of feminine psychology. His admirer T. S. Eliot wrote: 'Middleton was a great observer of human nature, without fear, without sentiment, without prejudice.'

Middleton's first plays were acted by boy companies at Blackfriars Theatre and other venues. He often worked in collaboration with other dramatists for the theatre owner Philip Henslowe. With Thomas Dekker (c. 1570-1632) he wrote The Honest Whore (1604) and The Roaring Girl (1610), and with William Rowley he produced the powerful tragedy The Changeling (1622). Some modern scholars also believe that the texts we now have of Shakespeare's Macbeth and Measure for Measure were substantially altered by Middleton. The Revenger's Tragedy (1606) is now generally attributed to Middleton, rather than Cyril Tourneur.

Middleton's social comedies include A Trick to Catch the Old One (1604-05), which provided the basis for Philip Massinger's A New Way to Pay Old Debts (1623), A Mad World, My Masters (1605), which introduced Sir Bounteous Progress, a lively country gentleman who is generous to all except his heir Dick Follywit, and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside (1619), which satirized ordinary Londoners.

Other works include the tragedy Women Beware Women (1621) and the political satire A Game of Chess (1624), about the futile efforts to unite the royal houses of England (represented by the White Knight) and Spain (the Black Knight). The play drew huge crowds to the Globe Theatre but the Spanish ambassador protested and James I had A Game of Chess banned after only nine performances. It proved equally popular in print.